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June 24, 2017

Dems Should Heed Bernie’s Warning


Bernie Sanders, in an interview in The Huffington Post, had some strong words for Democrats, and in typical Bernie fashion, he didn’t hold back.

“The truth is, and I think anyone who objectively assesses the situation has to appreciate, that the model the Democrats have followed for the last 10 to 20 years has been an ultimate failure.”

Know what? He’s right. Much as it may pain them to admit, the flight plan the Party has been using over the last couple of decades has resulted in a crash landing. The unmitigated disaster that was the 2016 election was a long time coming.

Zach Carter cites some disturbing statistics that corroborate Sanders’ assessment. Over the last twenty years Democrats have gone from winning roughly half of the country’s 3100 counties in presidential elections to winning just 15 percent. That is an alarming trend that if not corrected will inevitably lead to political extinction.

And yet, to hear the leadership, you’d think that everything is just peachy keen. The problem, they insist, is simply a matter of turnout and getting more of their base engaged. However, it wasn’t a lack of turnout that led to Hillary Clinton’s loss. Clinton got her base to the polls, yet still lost to Trump. For Carter, the problem was one of geography not demographics. The Party focused their attention – and messaging – almost exclusively on large urban areas while virtually ignoring the millions of people in the less populated regions of the country. The belief was that Clinton’s margins in the cities would carry her over the finish line. Not only did that not happen, but the strategy cost them a shot at the Senate as well. Carter explains,

Running up the score in population centers isn’t helping much with down-ballot contests either. As culturally liberal people move away from suburban and rural communities and concentrate themselves in cities, they’ve increased the Democratic Party’s margins in already blue areas — but decreased them in swing suburban, exurban and rural districts. At the same time, Republicans have aggressively gerrymandered many previously competitive districts, redrawing them to neutralize Democratic votes. Those two factors make it extremely difficult going forward for Democrats to win the U.S. House of Representatives, where they’ve shed 69 seats since 2008, or state legislatures, where they’ve ceded more than 900 seats over the same stretch, without revitalizing their position in exurban and rural America.

You didn’t need to be a rocket scientist to conclude that apart from the Northeast and west coast, the Democrats got crushed. Indeed, if you subtract those two regions, the total number of states they won not bordering on an ocean was five. Four years ago that number was ten. In 1996, it was sixteen. The truth is most of the central part of the country has become a sea of red. What used to be an electoral map that was defined by North vs. South is now an electoral map defined by urban vs. rural. And rural is winning.

It may be a hard pill for Democrats to swallow, but it’s looking more and more like Barack Obama, far from being the rule, appears to have been the exception. His two impressive wins in 2008 and 2012 stand in stark contrast to the two losses by Al Gore and John Kerry that proceeded him and the epic collapse by Clinton which followed. Just look at these numbers:

In 2012, Obama carried 26 states and won 332 electoral votes; in 2016, Clinton carried just 20 states and ended up with 227 electoral votes. While Clinton won the popular vote by almost 3 million, the bulk of that margin came from deep blue states like California and New York.

Apologists for Clinton point to the fact that she lost Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin – and with it the White House – by a combined total of 82 thousand votes. But the fact is Obama won all three of those states in 2012 by a combined total of 962 thousand votes. That’s a difference of just over a million votes. To make matters worse, Obama won Ohio, Iowa and Florida by a combined total of 334 thousand votes, while Clinton lost all three by a combined total of 540 thousand votes; a difference of 874 thousand votes. All told, Clinton got almost two million fewer votes than Obama in the all-important swing states. That’s not a close shave, people, that’s a wipeout.

So now what? With a midterm election staring them in the face, what are the Democrats’ plans? If the last two midterms are any indication we could be looking at a slaughter. Already you can hear the bean counters at work. The Republicans will drop the ball on their efforts to repeal Obamacare and Trump will continue to push the envelope until he either gets impeached or his party invokes the 25th Amendment. When that happens, the Democrats will come to the rescue like Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders.

We’ve seen this movie before and it never ends well. If the Democratic Party really believes that the American electorate will come back home like some prodigal son, I’ve got some bad news for it. Turns out Democrats are even less popular than the GOP and – even more humiliating – Trump. So says a poll conducted by Suffolk University. Want to know who’s the most popular politician in the country? It’s Mike Pence. That’s right, Mr. religious liberty is number one with a bullet. Right behind him is Il Duce. The only thing keeping Democrats out of the cellar is Clinton herself and Congress as a whole. When you’re only saving grace is that you’re ahead of the person who lost to the most racist, xenophobic presidential candidate in history and the worst legislature since the founding of the Republic, you should be ashamed, not gleeful.

But Democrats seem oblivious to these facts. They dismiss any and all criticism and remain intransigent. Shaun King of The Daily News writes,

At a time when Donald Trump is the least liked President ever measured at this point in his first term, the Democratic Party has found a way to be even less liked than him. This is how Donald Trump wins a second term. This is how congressional Republicans win the next midterm elections. This is how conservatives not only maintain their current power from coast to coast, but also expand it. 

Huge grassroots movements, made up of millions and millions of people, are fueling the fight for a $15 minimum wage, fighting back against fossil fuels and the Dakota Access Pipeline, fighting to end fracking, fighting to remove lobbyist money from politics, fighting to end senseless wars and international violence, fighting for universal healthcare, fighting for the legalization of marijuana, fighting for free college tuition, fighting against systems of mass incarceration, and so much more. But mainstream Democrats aren’t really a central part of any of those battles, and, to be clear, each of those issues have deep networks, energized volunteers, and serious donors, but corporate Democrats virtually ignore them.

And almost as important as the message is the messenger. Face it, Clinton may have made a very good president, but she was a flawed candidate who ran a lousy campaign. Her strategy appeared to be to have her cake and eat it too. Her affinity for hedging her bets on issues like the minimum wage and TPP made her look like a hack and left a bad taste in many voters’ mouths. And she was despised in the Rust-belt region where Trump was able to steal many blue-collar workers from the Democratic column.

Perhaps steal is too strong a word. The truth is that Clinton never really put up a fight for them. The consensus within her campaign and most of the party was they would probably lose Ohio, but prevail in Wisconsin and Michigan. The sheer arrogance of such thinking is what led to Democrats losing in 2016, and it will likely be the reason they lose again in 2020. Identity politics may have given Democrats huge margins in urban American, but it resulted in a shrinking electoral map across the country.

You’d think that faced with such dire news the Democratic Party would want to change how it goes about attracting voters. You’d think that, but you’d be wrong. Far from changing tactics, the Party seems hell-bent on doubling down on its failed strategy. They seem determined to “write off” rural America altogether.

It is astonishing in this day and age for a major political party to not even make a play for voters; to ostensibly forfeit them to the opposition party. Yet that is exactly what the Democratic Party has decided to do. And the sad truth is they don’t need to do this. Democrats can win in these regions if they put some effort into it.

Obama managed to do so twice; shit he even won Indiana in ’08. Not even Bill Clinton did that. And he did it by crafting a message that was inclusive, not exclusive. It may have sounded corny at the time, but when Obama said “There are no red states or blue states, just the United States,” he was resonating with voters all over the country who were fed up with being labeled as strictly liberal or conservative.

Joe Maxwell understood what Obama was trying to do. Who’s Joe Maxwell? He’s the political director for the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) who was almost singlehandedly responsible for killing a right to farm bill in Oklahoma that, if passed, would’ve ostensibly shielded Big Ag from any and all environmental regulations. The “No” vote passed by 20 points, astonishing given that Trump won every county in the state.

Maxwell is a Democrat, but that hardly matters, because, like Obama, he has discovered how to communicate with his constituents on their level, and he some advice for his fellow compadres. “Democrats don’t have to throw out their values. Democrats don’t even have to abandon their issues. It’s about how you frame it. It’s about connecting with people and showing them how your ideas fit with their values.”

Zach Carter says that “Maxwell’s brand of politics looks beyond the poll-tested analytics that dominate Washington.” He goes on to further explain:

Even the best mathematical models are only useful at a particular snapshot in time. They treat voters as static data points, rather than human beings capable of changing their minds. A model might focus on the number of Democrats registered in a district to predict the party’s performance in an upcoming race. But models can’t explain how to create more Democrats in that district.

I cannot stress this enough: the Democratic Party MUST find a way to reconnect with this part of the country; their future as a political force depends on it. No, they will never win Oklahoma, or for that matter Nebraska, or Idaho, or Montana, or the Dakotas. That’s not the point. You don’t craft a message based simply on appealing to a constituency that already supports you, anymore than a business would come up with an advertising strategy that would target a segment of the market they already serve. You grow your business by growing your market share.

Blue-collar workers once called the Democratic Party their home. That isn’t the case anymore. Trump gave them a song and dance which they bought. But more to the point, he paid attention to them, told them they were getting screwed and promised to do something about it. And while we all know Trump is a con artist who will never deliver on his promise, the lesson for Democrats could not be plainer.

In business, if you want someone to buy your product, you have to give them a reason to do so. It is no different in politics. Votes are earned, not given. Bernie understood that; Hillary didn’t. It’s time Democrats started earning their votes.

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Peter Fegan

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